Shaw, George Bernard
- Stanley Weintraub
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)
Shaw, George Bernard (1856–1950), playwright and polemicist, was born on 26 July 1856 at 3 Upper Synge Street (later 33 Synge Street), Dublin. He was the third and youngest child, and only son, of George Carr Shaw (1815–1885), a pensioned law-court clerk and failing corn merchant, and Lucinda Elizabeth, née Gurly (1830–1913), daughter of Walter Bagnall Gurly, an impoverished country gentleman of co. Carlow. On his father's side Sonny, as Shaw was known as a child, came from the fading protestant ascendancy, landed gentry who had crossed the Irish Sea, after Cromwell, from Scotland and England. His grandfather, an earlier Bernard Shaw, had eleven children who survived into maturity, most of them what his grandson called ‘downstarts’. The 'Shaw family of dipsomaniacs', as Shaw described them in a note in his diary in 1882, were on the male side 'unconvivial dramdrinkers'. His father was a furtive drinker when he married the much younger Bessie Gurly on 17 June 1852. Eager to escape her dour, hunchbacked aunt, Ellen Whitcroft, who had brought her up, Bessie chanced life with an unpleasant, quirky Dubliner who had squandered his income; by marriage Bessie lost her own assets to her widowed father, who had remarried a month earlier to legalize a natural infant daughter. On Bessie's honeymoon with George Shaw in Liverpool she discovered that he was an advanced alcoholic. She had nowhere to go, remaining in what her son described as the 'hell' of 'shabby-genteel poverty with a drunken husband' (Autobiography, 22).
Early years and education
With his sisters Lucinda Frances (b. 1853) and (Elinor) Agnes (b. 1855), George Bernard (he dropped the George when he left home) endured a middle-class impecuniosity which seemed even more humiliating than to have been born poor and to have pretensions to nothing more. After being tutored by an 'ill-tempered, but quite sober' clerical uncle (Diaries, 1.29), he attended, briefly, Dublin day schools. His first was the Wesleyan connexional, nearby at 79 St Stephen's Green, which he entered at nine in the summer term of 1865, and where he was taught—badly, he later thought—Homer, Caesar, Virgil, and scripture. After three months he was removed, returning in August 1867 for another three months; in February 1868 he was readmitted. In one of the interstices he attended, briefly, a lower-class school at 23–4 Sandycove Road, near Dalkey.
Bessie Shaw, who had an attractive mezzo-soprano voice and some talent at the piano, had begun offering lessons in her home to eke out her husband's diminishing income, and she was already a member of George John Lee's Amateur Musical Society. A mesmeric figure in Dublin musical circles, Lee proposed, after the death of his invalid younger brother in 1862, a joint household in which he and Mrs Shaw could share larger rooms for lessons and rehearsals. When George Carr Shaw, a cipher in the arrangement, ignored by his increasingly cold and independent wife, offered no objections, the move to the more upscale 1 Hatch Street house created a ménage à trois that gave Sonny, in effect, an additional and more admirable father figure.
Whether Lee was also Shaw's biological father—he had been close to Bessie long enough for that possibility—obsessed Shaw all his life. Mrs Shaw had turned to music, and to Lee, for consolation. Lee's former residence in Harrington Street, a short stroll from Synge Street, had been a magnet for women eager to acquire the ‘method’ ministered by the Svengali-like voice coach who turned modest voices like Bessie's into concert-quality, conducted female choruses, and basked in the attentions of the fair sex. Yet Shaw noted in later years that Lee, who was his mother's age, seemed at the time to have had no dalliances with women, and he characterized his mother as a fiercely chaste dragon. Shaw also defensively maintained that he resembled the bearded George Carr Shaw, pointing to Lee's socially impossible Roman Catholicism, his lame leg, and his puny stature. It may be an index to his anxieties, however, that he peopled his plays from the start with orphans, natural children, children with multiple parents, children who did not know the identities of their parents, and other genetic mysteries not far removed from the plot staples of Victorian fiction and melodrama. None the less he was legally George Shaw's son, and Lee's ‘method’ appears to have been limited to the larynx.
Lee not only made music with Mrs Shaw at Hatch Street but for the months of milder weather leased Torca Cottage on Dalkey Hill, overlooking Killiney Bay from the steeply sloped front garden. At seventy-five Shaw recalled his days there as a ten-year-old as the happiest of his life, where, under the 'canopied skies', he could be 'a prince in a world of my own imagination' (Holroyd, 1.28). Resorting to his inner self was essential, as his father, having no occupation beyond the unrewarding mill but his bibulousness, had even less interest in Sonny than did Bessie. Inexperienced with children, Lee offered him, on occasion, some of the rudiments of music, especially opera. The boy was enchanted. Later Shaw claimed the boon of three fathers, as dramatized in Misalliance (1909) in the experience of Joey Percival, who has 'the regulation natural chap', 'a tame philosopher', and 'an Italian priest' (Plays, 4.166):
[the trio] took charge of Joey's conscience. … You see, the philosopher was a freethinker, and always believed the latest thing. The priest didn't believe anything. … And the natural father kept an open mind and believed whatever paid him best. Between the lot of them Joey got cultivated no end.ibid.,
In Sonny's own case the philosophical father figure was his ‘Rabelaisian’ uncle, Walter Gurly, a ship's doctor who visited between voyages. Uncle Walter destroyed, Shaw recalled, 'all my inculcated childish reverence for the verbiage of religion, for its legends and personifications and parables' (Autobiography, 1.37). The non-believing priest suggests Lee, who ministered to his special flock with his ‘method’, its holy book, and professed a nominal Catholicism. In February 1869 Shaw was withdrawn from the Wesleyan connexional school for failure to learn, and transferred to the Central Model School in Marlborough Street, a less genteel, non-denominational institution that included Roman Catholic boys. Shaw, who attended this school for seven months, at ninety recalled his 'shame and wounded snobbery' (Shaw, Self Sketches, 39). At thirteen he was enrolled in the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School, a protestant academy in Aungier and Whitefriars streets that substituted business training for Latin and Greek. He remained for two years, accepting his incarceration as a final prison term. Shaw claimed to have learned little there, waiting out each day until he and a friend, Matthew Edward McNulty, could go off to afternoon classes at the Royal Dublin Society's Schools of Art, or visit the National Gallery.
Shaw's employment began on 26 October 1871, when he was fifteen, as a junior clerk in a Dublin estate agency run by two brothers, Charles Uniacke and Thomas Courtney Townshend, at a salary of £18 a year. From nine to six, as Shaw relived the experience through the character of Julius Baker in Misalliance, he sat in 'a stuffy little den counting another man's money. … I enter and enter, and add and add, and take money and give change, and fill cheques and stamp receipts'. He also copied business letters and filed them, and ran petty errands which at the least released him into the outside world. It was, he thought, a 'damnable waste of human life' (Plays, 4.214–15). While he performed his drudgery so conscientiously over fifteen months that his wages rose to £24, his family situation had altered. His musical ‘father’, who had intimated grander aspirations by renaming himself G. J. Vandeleur Lee, had begun producing Italian opera, exploiting the talents of his flock. In January 1872 he also founded a New Philharmonic Society as a rival to the existing Dublin orchestra. At Hatch Street Bessie Shaw was his adjutant. By early 1873 Lee was conductor of the annual Dublin Musical Festival, but his ambitions now could not be contained by Ireland. At the beginning of June, cancelling his next advertised concert, Lee embarked for London.
On 17 June 1873, in a move planned well in advance, Mrs Shaw, with Agnes (Lucy followed later) also left for London. Whether or not she intended the symbolism, it was her twenty-first wedding anniversary. George Carr Shaw remained behind with their son. Abandoned with the furniture was the piano. With the music stopped, young Shaw purchased a manual, began teaching himself the keyboard, and laboriously learned the fingering for his mother's vocal score of Don Giovanni.
In February 1873, just before the Hatch Street ménage broke up, the head cashier at Townshends abruptly departed. Shaw substituted so efficiently that he was given the job at double his wages. At £48 a year he could even afford the necessary uniform of a tailcoat. Tabulating rental payments, especially those of the poor, and going out each Tuesday to collect some of them, was an early confrontation with economic injustice and inequality of opportunity. Books as well as music—after working hours—compensated for office tedium. There were few books at home because no adult at Hatch Street valued reading; however, most protestant families displayed Bunyan and the Bible, and such periodicals as Household Words. Shaw discovered Blake, Byron, and Shelley—all rebels to be read somewhat furtively. Although Dublin productions were largely adaptations of French melodrama and watered-down Shakespeare, theatre was an affordable joy.
First years in London
While Shaw served his time, his mother and sisters had settled at 13 Victoria Grove, a house off the Fulham Road, London. Lee was a half-hour's walk away, at 13 Park Lane, an appropriately posh address for his ambitions. Bessie returned to Dublin in March 1874 to sell her furniture and move her abandoned husband and son to cheaper rooms at 61 Harcourt Street. Since George Carr Shaw remained legally responsible for his wife, he agreed to send her £1 a week. They never lived under the same roof again.
At Harcourt Street the elder Shaw spent his evenings over a newspaper or the dismal mill accounts. He and his son seldom spoke to each other. But early in 1876 young George learned from his mother that Yuppy, as Agnes was known, had been moved to a sanatorium to finish out her days. She had long suffered from tuberculosis. Claiming family feeling, he had an excuse to leave his post, now paying him £84 a year. In any case he had been peeved that the Townshends were proposing to place a relative in the cashier's chair. Refusing an insignificant job at a higher salary, he resigned on 29 February. He was still working out his month's notice when Agnes died on 27 March.
Although Shaw left almost immediately on the North Wall boat to London, travelling from there with his mother and Lucy to Agnes's funeral at Ventnor, and intending never to return to Dublin, at nearly twenty his only vocational skill was in a role he had rejected. In London now to stay, he found no work but ghost-writing, for Lee, unsigned musical notices in The Hornet, a satirical weekly. The subterfuge lasted for ten months, after which the faltering paper, which expired early the next year, was unable to pay for further reviews.
Lucy and her mother were now only 'frostily civil' to Lee (Holroyd, 1.62) because of his unwanted attentions to Lucy. Mrs Shaw began taking voice pupils herself, and Lucy, who was pretty and talented, sought singing roles. Since Shaw needed some source of income, he kept close to Lee even after the ghosting ended, helping at the piano when Lee held rehearsals, but Lee's vogue was proving short-lived. Shaw drafted a third edition of Lee's ‘method’ pamphlet, The Voice, that was never published. Moneyless and forgotten, Lee died of heart disease in November 1886.
Filling empty days while waiting for responses to job applications, Shaw procured a reader's ticket to the British Museum and spent most weekdays at a desk in the spacious round reading room under the newly gaslit dome. It became his informal university, and because it was home to radical intellectuals of both sexes who also needed such a venue the reading room further became Shaw's informal club. He tried writing short fiction and drama, even beginning in February 1878 a blank-verse satire about the home life of Jesus, with Mary as a termagant mother and Judas, favourably, as a young man 'unblinded' by 'self-delusion' (Plays, 7.508). After 1260 lines he abandoned the effort in the second act. (It was published posthumously as Passion Play.) Also in February 1878 he wrote a satire, My Dear Dorothea, subtitled, eighteenth-century style, 'A practical system of moral education for females embodied in a letter to a young person of that sex'. (It was also published posthumously.) Later that year he began a novel as 'The Legg Papers'. A survival from it may be the short story 'The Miraculous Revenge', about a wandering graveyard. W. B. Yeats, offered it in 1906, published it in his miscellany The Shanachie.
In his neat clerical hand Shaw began a more ambitious effort on 5 March 1879, an autobiographical novel he titled, 'with merciless fitness' (Holroyd, 1.73), Immaturity. In the reading room he attempted at least five pages a day about the adventures of a diffident young clerk who comes to London from the provinces at twenty to seek a more interesting life but fails to grow up. It was Shaw's own David Copperfield, with a flavour both reminiscent of Dickens and, in its grimy realism, anticipatory of Gissing. Its sometimes sober, often satirical, evocation of mid-Victorian England, crowded with closely realized characters and scenes, put off every publisher in London. It emerged only as the first volume of Shaw's collected edition of 1930–31.
Unhopeful as he completed revisions on 5 November 1879, Shaw began anew to seek employment. Writing with scrupulous honesty to the manager of the Edison Telephone Company, new in London, he confessed, 'I know how to wait for success in literature, but I do not know how to live on air in the interim' (Letters, 1.23). He was placed in the way-leave department to persuade East End residents to allow wires and other telephone paraphernalia to cross their properties. Hired on 14 November 1879, he was running the unit by February 1880, his annual salary rising from £48 to £80. Still, when the company merged with a rival as the United Telephone Company, he chose not to go with it. On the same day he began The Irrational Knot, his second novel, its protagonist an American electrical engineer of the breezy, confident sort imported for telephone work. Together with Shaw's three novels that followed, similarly turned down on completion, it padded out propagandist magazines sponsored by Shaw's socialist friends. The Irrational Knot, its title a sneer at conventional marriage, was completed on 1 December 1880, serialized in 1886–7 in Annie Besant's Our Corner, and not published in book form until 1905. Shaw later pronounced the novel a forerunner of Ibsen, of whom he had not yet heard, because one spouse—in Shaw's case the husband—walks out on the other at the close. Shaw's characters, several hardly more than animated theories, were endowed with what he described as an 'original morality' (preface, The Irrational Knot, 1905 American edition, xxii, xviii) which publishers found crude, disagreeable, and even perverse.
With half-hearted job-hunting still fruitless, Shaw began Love among the Artists on 19 May 1881. By then he had adopted vegetarianism—inspired by Shelley, by poverty, and because it was the choice of the radical friends he joined for meals (his mother ignored him). Before he was very far into his daily routine of five pages he came down with smallpox, then prevalent in London, and was confined to lodgings at 37 Fitzroy Street, where he, with his breadwinning mother and occasionally his sister, had moved the previous December. Now retired from his seafaring practice and living in Leyton, Uncle Walter took him in. Shaw had continued with his novel, finishing it in January 1882, and also using his sickbed isolation to teach himself Pitman shorthand. When he returned to his Bloomsbury haunts, friends suggested that for a change of scene after his long illness, as well as for greater opportunities, he emigrate to America. Instead, Shaw sent The Irrational Knot across the Atlantic, but it was turned down on moral grounds.
In mid-April 1882, just before Shaw and his mother (Lucy was engaged in small roles with travelling operetta companies) moved once more, to 36 Osnaburgh Street, near Regent's Park, he began a new novel in which the hero is a prize-fighter. With a friend, Pakenham Beatty, as sparring partner, he had taken up amateur boxing the year before. Further illness intervened, this time scarlet fever, which sent him back to Leyton, and before he resumed work on the boxing novel he wrote another short story, 'The Serenade', published after several rejections in the Magazine of Music in November 1885. Interruptions in his routine are not evident in the 324 pages of the manuscript novel, which he finished on 6 February 1883. The writing is exuberant. Serialized in 1885–6 and published in book form from the magazine plates in 1886, Cashel Byron's Profession examined the 'immoral' and 'retrograde' professions (in the words of the heroine, the millionairess Lydia Carew) of prize-fighting and the wagering on the outcome. As an indictment of society it anticipated such early plays of his as Mrs Warren's Profession. In 1901 Shaw satirized his own novel, which had sold out its 1s. original run of 2500 copies, in a burlesque Elizabethan blank-verse play, The Admirable Bashville.
The socialism in Cashel Byron had been an afterthought, some of it inserted for its appearance in To-Day after he had been converted by attending a lecture by Henry George, a socialist and political economist. Shaw was spurred to reading Marx, whose gospel became the springboard for his final complete novel, An Unsocial Socialist (originally entitled 'The Heartless Man' when he began it in March 1883). With his self-taught shorthand he drafted it with new efficiency, then made a copy in his clerical copperplate. It was finished, largely by abbreviating the adventures of his hero, on 15 December 1883, serialized in the socialist To-Day in 1884, and published in book form after many rejections in 1887. An Unsocial Socialist was, at the very least, different. Intended as 'a gigantic grapple with the whole social problem' (Autobiography, 1.104), it broke down under the weight of its incongruities, which included a runaway husband, a finishing school for girls, and ponderous paraphrases from Marx's Capital, among sparkling passages of Shavian dialogue that foreshadowed his later work. Sidney Trefusis, the socialist agitator as handsome hero, is a prototype of John Tanner of Man and Superman.
A fragment written in 1887–8 and posthumously published in 1958 as An Unfinished Novel was Shaw's final false start in fiction, with an abortive plot that anticipates both Candida and The Doctor's Dilemma. However, he was by then deep in more rewarding pursuits, for despite his failures in fiction the 1880s was the decade in which Shaw found himself personally and professionally. Even the abandoned novel was evidence of that, for its hero is pursued by two desirable women, both of them married; Shaw, lean and just above 6 feet in height, with an auburn beard cultivated to conceal the scars of smallpox, had discovered that he was extremely attractive to women. He showed interest in several he had met at political evenings, or encountered as his mother's voice students, but an older woman, the widowed Jane (Jenny) Patterson (1839–1924), had designs upon him. In his diary in July 1885 he noted that he 'celebrated my birthday with a new experience': the willing loss of his virginity, at which she had assisted. Too poor to maintain a wife, he had evaded, he later claimed, sexual ties which might have required marriage, and hence giving up the struggle to become a writer. His first mistresses were married, or once married, women.
Journalism and politics
In the mid-1880s Shaw became a socialist, a polemicist, a journalist, a spellbinding speaker, a critic of the arts—even, tentatively, a playwright. He emerged as the force behind the Fabian Society, newly founded in 1884, a middle-class socialist group which aimed to transform Britain not through radicalism or revolution but through ‘permeation’ (Sidney Webb's term) of the nation's intellectual and political life. Adept at committee work and at anything involving writing skills, Shaw involved himself in every aspect of Fabian activities, most visibly at the start in editing a landmark of modern British politics, Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), to which he also contributed.
A shy young man on his arrival in London in 1876, and also impecunious, Shaw found that the cheapest, and the most stimulating, entertainment could be found in the many meeting rooms in which speech making and debating on political, social, and religious issues took place. Soon he was drawn into them, and the subjects focused his reading, which in turn gave him confidence to rise and offer his own opinions. The most significant lecture he attended may have been that of Henry George, who expounded upon his influential Progress and Poverty (1879). Shaw became convinced that there was an economic basis to humane living which required more equality of opportunity to reap the rewards of work. Becoming a socialist, he came to believe that through social change human aspiration to be better and live better would become realistic and attainable. As his pragmatic yet idealistic industrialist, Andrew Undershaft, put it in Major Barbara (1905), in what represents the kernel of Shaw's philosophy, the 'deadly sins' responsible for the social 'crime' of poverty were 'Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children'. Almost all his writings, directly or indirectly, concerned how society might be better organized to eliminate the 'millstones' to human progress (Plays, 3.171–2).
Through the Fabians Shaw assisted at the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, and spoke on behalf of Fabian-endorsed candidates regardless of party. Before the consolidation of London local government he was himself a vestryman and borough councillor for St Pancras (1897–1903), which led to his promoting the municipalization of utilities and transport in The Common Sense of Municipal Trading (1904). After losing an election for London county council he turned down appeals that he run for parliamentary seats.
A pamphleteer and speaker of rare dialectical skill, Shaw harangued audiences of any size, from a handful in a back room to outdoor crowds of thousands—often as frequently as three times a week, and always without fee. The experience forged the forceful prose of what he called his missionary books, which included The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891, enlarged 1913); The Perfect Wagnerite (1898); and The Sanity of Art (written as a lengthy review in 1895, enlarged into book form in 1908). In the same spirit were the challenging prefaces to, and debating dialogue of, many of his plays.
Shaw's journalism had dried up after the Hornet experience, but for a few minor pieces in the early 1880s—until he met a young drama critic, William Archer, in the British Museum in 1883. Through Archer, a translator of Ibsen, Shaw secured some play-reviewing assignments and then a regular post as art critic for The World. His first unsigned art column appeared on 10 February 1886. Until 1891 he walked the Bond Street galleries and the Royal Academy shows in Piccadilly, writing about pictures also for the afternoon Star and the weekly Truth. Encounters with the visual and plastic arts convinced him that they could be used to promote social progress, and that art could be exploited in the dialogue, design, settings, and symbolism of his plays. These began in earnest in the early 1890s.
Shaw also contributed unsigned book reviews to the Pall Mall Gazette, his first appearing on 16 May 1885 and the last, after which his reviewing became only occasional, on 26 December 1888. Meanwhile, on the sudden departure of the Star's music critic, he initiated what became six years of brilliant, if sometimes brilliantly digressive, musical columns, first from 1888 to 1889 as Corno di Bassetto (basset horn), afterwards, for The World (1890–94), as G.B.S.—initials that became recognized worldwide as his signature. His intention, he explained, was to write such readable copy that even 'deaf stockbrokers' would read his columns. They were more than entertainments, however: 'it is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter', he claimed, 'that makes a man a critic'. He explained, further:
I am always electioneering. … I desire certain reforms, and in order to get them, I make every notable performance an example of the want of them [elsewhere]. … Never in my life have I penned an impartial criticism; and I hope I never may.The World, 6 July 1892
Years later, when collecting his music reviews for book publication, Shaw confessed that he had been too quick to undervalue Mendelssohn as sentimental treacle and Brahms as secondhand Beethoven. He had also promoted some composers who did not last, hoping to revive a school of ‘English’ music that went beyond faddish oratorios and lightweight operettas (his view of Gilbert and Sullivan). He saw Edward Elgar as being in the English vanguard—a zeal that eventually caused Elgar to dedicate the Severn Suite (1930) to him. Shaw was Wagner's staunchest advocate in Britain, a keen exponent of the early Puccini and Mascagni, seeing Italian opera ‘born again’, and a missionary for the rehabilitation of Mozart, Haydn, Gluck, and Weber.
Recruited by Frank Harris as a theatre critic for the Saturday Review, again as G.B.S., Shaw campaigned in its columns from January 1895 to May 1898 to displace the artificialities and hypocrisies of the Victorian stage (which he labelled, collectively, 'Sardoodledom'—Saturday Review, 1 June 1895) with a theatre of vital ideas embodied in vital characters. With the talk about a ‘New Drama’ threatening to end, in England at least, as 'only a figment of the revolutionary imagination', Shaw had already determined that the stagnation in the West End was unacceptable: 'I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse I manufactured the evidence' (Autobiography, 1.281). Even before he had become the leading play critic in London, however, he had become a playwright.
Shaw had been experimenting with drama since his early twenties, but not until William Archer in 1884 suggested a collaboration (he to supply the plot, Shaw the dialogue) did G.B.S. work seriously with the stage in mind. Even then their project was abandoned after Shaw, Archer claimed, used up all the projected plot (a variation on Wagner's Rheingold motif). Eight years later, in 1892, Shaw returned to the script, completing it on his own for J. T. Grein's new Independent Theatre Society. As Widowers' Houses it created a newspaper sensation disproportionate to its two performances in December 1892: the press, goaded by Shaw's self-promotion, saw it as a dramatized socialist tract, although he had lightened it through what he had learned about ironic comedy from Ibsen and Dickens. The romantic predicament of the lovers (who discover that both their incomes derive from exploiting the poor) becomes an economic one. The ‘happy ending’ in which the betrothed pair embrace a comfortable immorality as well as each other, displeased audiences expecting maudlin conventions exploited even by the most daring contemporary playwrights. Shaw had to publish the play (in 1893) to make it accessible.
Unafraid to satirize himself, or even the new movements he championed, Shaw next invented an ‘Ibsen Club’ and ironically portrayed the New Woman types likely to be its members in The Philanderer (completed on 11 July 1893). In the autobiographical anti-hero, Leonard Charteris, Shaw created a charming cynic over whom even advanced women lost their self-respect. Concern that the comedy could not be performed, and the anticipated red-pencilling by the censor, kept it from production until 1905. Undeterred, Shaw completed on 2 November 1893 a third play, Mrs Warren's Profession, on the heels of the second. Refused a licence on grounds of immorality (there was a suggestion of incest), it sinned more by being unconventional in ironically justifying the ‘oldest profession’. Commercial prostitution was treated without the titillation afforded by fashionable dramas about ‘fallen women’ long popular in the West End. To make that distinction certain, Shaw drew his Kitty Warren as a vulgarly flashy woman who found that being proprietor of her own body was more advantageous than sweating for a pittance in a factory or pub, and who turned that perception into a chain of profitable brothels financed by outwardly respectable gentlemen. Her daughter, Vivie, whose discovery of how her élite Newnham College education in Cambridge had been financed brings the problem into focus, is an apparently cold-blooded creature unlikely to look sentimentally at daughterly duty. The result is a sardonic high comedy built upon a paradox: her mother's profession is meant to symbolize not only the social and economic guilt responsible for it but all the ways in which people prostitute themselves for gain. Produced privately (beyond the censor's powers) in 1902, it was not licensed for the public stage in England until 1925, when it was already world-famous.
Labelling as ‘unpleasant’ the first three works in his Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898), Shaw explained that 'their dramatic power is being used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts. No doubt all plays which deal sincerely with humanity must wound the monstrous conceit which it is the business of romance to flatter'. The ‘pleasant’ plays of the companion volume were Shaw's attempts to find the producers and the audiences which his mordant comedies put off. 'To me', he contended in his preface,
[both] the tragedy and the comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history.Plays, 1.2
Arms and the Man, written between 26 November 1893 and 30 March 1894 (presented on 21 April 1894) satirizes, in a spoof-Balkan setting, romantic falsifications of love, war, and upward mobility, and was itself romanticized (although unauthorized by Shaw) in the Oscar Straus operetta The Chocolate Soldier (1909). The producer and second female lead, playing the wily and sexy servant, Louka, was Shaw's mistress since 1891 (in parallel with the tenacious Jenny Patterson), Florence Farr (1860–1917). The ‘pleasant’ Candida, written between 2 October and 7 December 1894 and first performed on 30 July 1897, seemed to be a conventional comedic melodrama about husband, wife, and young interloper, complete to happy ending in which the sanctity of marriage is upheld and the trouble-maker ejected into the night. Beneath its surface, however, the wife—who represents herself in a tense ‘auction’ scene as being forced to decide between her clergyman husband (a heretofore smug Christian socialist) and a hysterical and immature budding poet—chooses the best of all possible worlds for herself. Perceiving the charade, the poet renounces what Shaw later described as 'the small beer of domestic comfort' for the larger purposes he senses within himself.
The attractive interloper was a role which Shaw had already played in real life at least twice. William Morris's second daughter, May, six years younger than G.B.S., had waited hopelessly for his proposal, then settled for a mediocre match with H. H. Sparling, whereupon Shaw, ill again late in 1892 and needing a home in which to be cared for, moved in with the newly weds, destroying the marriage. Candida, played by Janet Achurch, for whom Shaw had created the role, had been Nora in the first English production of A Doll's House in 1889. The actress was the object of his infatuation for years, and was conveniently married to a complaisant husband. 'As an Irishman, an irregular artistic person, an anarchist in conduct', G.B.S. confessed to her, he was 'creator of an atmosphere subtly disintegrative of households' (Peters, 173). When she died at fifty-two in 1916, Shaw, whose cheques had kept the bailiffs away during her decline, paid the funeral expenses.
The ‘pleasant’ one-act The Man of Destiny, written between May and August 1895 and first performed in July 1897, was written for Henry Irving, the leading actor–manager of his day, but the autocratic Irving spurned it. Shaw intended 'a bravura piece' (Plays, 1.375) to display the virtuosity of the two major performers (of the cast of four), the other to have been the company's leading lady, Ellen Terry. His antidote to the 'older, coarser Napoleon' (ibid., 1.664) of previous plays in his time, it was his first study in greatness. Fourth of the ‘pleasant’ series, You Never Can Tell, written between July 1895 and May 1896 (first performed on 26 November 1899), was almost unique in its century in having a dentist as romantic hero, and a tooth extraction performed on stage. In light-hearted fashion it probed parent–child relationships, the equality of women in society, and the power of the sex instinct (‘chemistry’)—the duel of sex bringing together an amorist of uncertain confidence and an impregnably rational New Woman.
Once Oscar Wilde was disgraced in 1895, Shaw had no rival as comic dramatist. He considered none of his plays, however, as anything less than springboards for the conflict of ideas. 'Every jest', his Father Keegan observes in John Bull's Other Island (1904), 'is an earnest in the womb of time'. And many of his works for the stage, whatever their comic texture, possess a high purpose and a prose elegance unmatched by his theatre contemporaries.
Three Plays for Puritans (1901) packaged Shaw's continuing output, again with what became the expected Shavian preface—an introductory essay in lively prose, dealing as much with the ideas suggested by the plays as with the plays themselves. Three Plays made Shaw available to a wider public to whom his plays were generally inaccessible even when produced. The texts included stage directions and scene descriptions in narrative form rather than in brief directorial jargon (this Shaw practice later became a publishing norm). The title suggested, as Shaw declared in his preface, that the theatre had to reach beyond ‘pleasure’ to dramatize principle: 'The cart and trumpet for me' (Plays, 2.30).
Both the cart and the trumpet had kept Shaw's early plays from the stage and impelled his publication of them. He joked wryly in an interview in 1897: 'My reputation as a dramatist grows with every play of mine that is not performed' (Daily Mail, 15 May 1897). Two of his first three plays had trouble with the censor; most of his other early plays were deemed unpleasant and uncommercial by producers for the commercial theatre who thrived on what he derided as 'shallow amusement' and 'unwholesome confectionery'. Plays that might have been conventionally sentimental in other hands had been up-ended by Shaw; plays that suggested the usual dramatic turns underwent reversals. It took much of his first decade as a playwright to become a successful missionary for his new drama in the face of critical and commercial opposition to 'intellectual seriousness' on stage. To do so he created new theatregoers and converted traditional ones. To make that possible, he later explained, he had to employ a paradox and 'cut cerebral capers' once the curtain rose (Plays, 5.338–9).
Shaw's first ‘puritan’ play, The Devil's Disciple, written from September to December 1896 and first performed (in New York) in October 1897, was set in New Hampshire during the American War of Independence. Shaw's New England was as unrealistic a venue as the Bulgaria of Arms and the Man, and was written as an inversion of popular Adelphi Theatre melodrama. Audiences everywhere accepted the play as conventional, if witty, melodrama because their opening expectations are fulfilled almost without exception. Dick Dudgeon, however, the black sheep of his family because he despises puritan masochism and hypocrisy, is represented as heroically taking the place of a rebel minister whom the English condemn to the gallows in the style of Tale of Two Cities. Yet the characteristically contrary Dudgeon does the right things for the wrong reasons. He acts, not in Sydney Carton fashion (Shaw's Dickensian inspiration for the scene), out of love for the patriotic Anthony Anderson's young wife, as she supposes, but spontaneously, out of some instinctive imperative. As with Caesar and other crucial Shavian protagonists to come, virtue is a quality rather than an achievement.
Shaw's ambitious Caesar and Cleopatra was an attempt to write a play of Shakespearian scope for a heroic actor (Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson). Begun in April 1898 and completed that December, it was first performed by Forbes-Robertson's company in New York on 30 October 1906. (It had opened in Berlin in a production by Max Reinhardt on 31 March 1906.) He creates in his 'History' (as it was subtitled) a sixteen-year-old Cleopatra prior to her meeting Antony, and a Caesar not yet enticed back to Rome, and the demagoguery against which Brutus reacts. Shaw therefore eludes, by evading the Bard's Roman plays, the 'Better than Shakespear?' challenge seemingly raised in his preface. His feline Cleopatra, however, is a persuasive younger version of Shakespeare's cunning and more mature heroine; and his Caesar, as much philosopher as militarist in this mentor–disciple play, is meant to be a study in magnanimity and in 'original morality' rather than a larger-than-life figure on a stage pedestal: in Shaw's words, a hero 'in whom we can recognize our own humanity' (Shaw to B. W. Findon, Play Pictorial, Oct 1907).
The volume closed with Captain Brassbound's Conversion. Written from May to July 1899 and performed in London on 16 December 1900, it appeared to be little more than a north African encounter of the Mary Kingsley sort. Composed with Ellen Terry in mind, it featured a fearless Englishwoman among Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque brigands in turn-of-the-century Morocco. Serious themes, however, emerged from its musical-comedy plot, particularly that of revenge as twisted justice.
Marriage and its impact
In 1898 Shaw's multifarious activities were briefly curtailed by medicine. In the conditions of non-care in which he lived at 29 Fitzroy Square with his mother (the Shaws had moved again on 5 March 1887), an unhealed foot injury required Shaw's hospitalization. On 1 June 1898, while on crutches and recuperating from surgery for necrosis of the bone, Shaw married his informal nurse, Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, at the office of the registrar at 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He was nearly forty-two; the bride, a wealthy Irishwoman born at Londonderry on 20 January 1857, thus a half-year younger than her husband, resided in some style at 10 Adelphi Terrace, London, overlooking the Embankment.
A friend of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and a Fabian, she had met Shaw on 29 January 1896. The Webbs had been trying to match her with the historian Graham Wallas, who was handsome and sophisticated, to link her further to the Fabians; however it was the bohemian Shaw who became her constant companion, yet never in the most intimate sexual sense, even after their marriage and his move to Adelphi Terrace. At Charlotte's insistence, there was no consummation, although G.B.S. may have assumed that, given his success with women, her anxieties would be overcome in time. In any case, he was not in a condition to be persistent, and matters became worse. As he told Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in 1906, with typical hyperbole:
I thought I was dead, for it would not heal, and Charlotte had me at her mercy. I should never have married if I had thought I should get well. Then I tumbled again, this time downstairs from top to bottom. When I found myself on the floor of the hall with every bone broken I felt satisfied.Blunt, 136
Although Shaw moved in with Charlotte after a less-than-passionate honeymoon at Hindhead which he spent as an invalid in a wheelchair, he maintained a legal address at Fitzroy Square as long as he continued to be vestryman for St Pancras. That their union remained childless at her choice may be attributed to Charlotte's concerns about her age as well as other emotional factors. That it remained unconsummated is suggested by internal evidences in Shaw's plays that corroborate his explanations after her death that she wanted it that way. Strikingly, in his early plays, sexual passion is dramatized as overtly as contemporary censorship of the stage would have permitted. In fact, two of his first three plays went unperformed publicly for years because the censor's cuts would have gutted them. However, in Caesar and Cleopatra, the play Shaw began just before the marriage, he rewrote history by having Caesar eschew any sexual interest in Cleopatra (with whom in reality he had a son). Thereafter the erotic element in his plays diminishes to nearly nothing, almost as if he were denying its necessity, rationalizing an altered lifestyle which precluded sex. Yet in his private life a sexual itch, whether or not physically satisfied, persisted into his seventies. Although Shaw's friendships with women were largely epistolary, the sultry Stella, Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940)—the Eliza Doolittle of his Pygmalion in 1914, and the actress for whom he had written his Cleopatra—nearly wrecked his marriage. As late as August 1913 he had planned to run off with her, whatever the cost to their careers. Realizing finally the price she would pay, ‘Mrs Pat’ ducked their assignation at Sandwich. 'Farewell, wretch that I loved', Shaw scolded (Letters, 3.195).
In Shaw's futuristic later plays, sexual reproduction becomes obsolete, and sexually prompted orgasm is replaced by intellectual passion and thought-inspired ecstasy. As he wrote in the preface to a volume of his correspondence with Ellen Terry in 1931, 'Only on paper has mankind ever yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love' (Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: a Correspondence, xviii).
The Royal Court Theatre plays
As the new century opened, G.B.S. possessed the best-known initials in England; his physical form, always striking, had matured into the characteristic appearance by which the public came to know him: white hair and a long, full white beard. 'I have advertized myself so well', he claimed, 'that I find myself, whilst still in middle life, almost as legendary a person as the Flying Dutchman' (Plays, 2.32). With that licence he began, in July 1901, Man and Superman, a play which he completed in June 1902 and which encapsulated all his professional interests since he had begun writing. He 'took the legend of Don Juan in its Mozartean form', he explained:
and made it a dramatic parable of Creative Evolution. But being then at the height of my invention and comedic talent, I decorated it too lavishly. I surrounded it with a comedy of which it formed only one act, and that act [his Don Juan in Hell] was so episodical (it was a dream that did not affect the action of the piece) that the comedy could be detached and played by itself.Plays, 2.338
Also, he supplemented the published play (1903) 'with an imposing framework consisting of a preface, an appendix called The Revolutionist's Handbook, and a final display of aphoristic fireworks'. Shaw had so crowded his shop window 'that nobody noticed the new religion in the centre of the intellectual whirlpool' (ibid., 2.338–9). Seemingly too difficult to produce, it was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre after the success of his next play, John Bull's Other Island.
In Man and Superman Shaw introduced his term ‘life force’ to characterize the energy impelling ‘creative evolution’. Although he was an outspoken atheist in his twenties, Shaw moved thereafter into agnosticism and then into a personal mysticism inspired by the feeling that the universe had purpose behind it, rather than randomness: 'Has the colossal mechanism no purpose?' Don Juan challenges in the hell scene (Plays, 2.684). Shaw's own religious ideas—which remained firm despite his self-mockery of them in an urge always to turn drama into debate, and debate into drama—involved the centrality of a life force, or impersonal and amoral will, which worked through creative evolution (energized through eugenic procreation), to strive toward a superman (unrealizable pure intellect), and toward God (divine perfection). Although there are philosophical affinities with Henri Bergson's L'évolution créatrice (1907), Shaw's 'comedy and a philosophy'—his subtitle for his play—preceded Bergson (Pharand, 243–4). The two seem not to have known about each other until 1911, when the French treatise was translated into English and the parallels became apparent. In Shaw's preface and play-within-the-play, creative evolution was a purposeful and eternal movement to ever higher organisms which Shaw proposed as a more satisfactory explanation of the nature of life than ‘blind’ Darwinian evolution, and which, besides, restored intimations of divinity to the universe.
Subtitled 'A comedy and a philosophy', Man and Superman is a comedy of manners in which a resourceful young woman, Ann Whitefield, determines to capture the reluctant John Tanner, a social philosopher and socialist propagandist. The action incorporates interlocking debates and discussions in which Shaw explores the intellectual climate at the beginning of the new century. The ironic romance provides, too, the frame for the non-realistic third act dream interlude, often performed separately and independently, in which mythic counterparts to four characters in the comedy—Don Juan Tenorio, Doña Ana, the Commander (Doña Ana's late father, now a memorial statue), and the Devil—play out a dramatic quartet that is spoken theatre at its most operatic. Shaw often cast his plays according to the timbre of voice needed, and shaped his scenes into recitatives, arias, and vocal ensembles. In the duets and arias of Don Juan and the Devil, twentieth-century writing for the stage reached a peak, in its first years, that it would seldom touch again.
Shaw's next play, John Bull's Other Island (written and performed in 1904), was commissioned by W. B. Yeats for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but its directors (Yeats included), uneasy about audience reaction to the unsentimental honesty of Shaw's depiction of Ireland, used the excuse of casting difficulties to evade its production. Yet Shaw had made the central figure in his play about Anglo-Irish misunderstanding and smug colonialist exploitation a pompous Englishman as absurd as the comic Irishman common to the English stage. (Thomas Broadbent may be a genial caricature of an ambitious young MP, Winston Churchill.) Recognizing its political insights, Beatrice and Sidney Webb brought the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, who soon returned with two leaders of the opposition, prompting Edward VII to complain that the play, in repertory at the Royal Court Theatre since 1 November 1904, had closed before he saw it. A special performance was arranged for 11 March 1905, during which the king laughed so heartily that he broke the royal chair hired for the occasion. A Shaw boom arose that lasted into the First World War.
In the secondary but exquisitely drawn character of the unfrocked priest, Father Keegan, is Shaw's earliest exploration of the religious rebel as saint. Unlike the confident Englishman, Broadbent, Keegan confesses (in act iv) to not feeling 'at home in the world', which he sees as
a place of torment and penance; a place where the fool flourishes and the good and wise are hated and persecuted … Now, sir, there is only one place of horror and torment known to my religion; and that place is hell. Therefore it is plain to me that this earth of ours must be hell.
But Broadbent finds it 'rather a jolly place, in fact', and recommends 'phosphorus pills. I always take them when my brain is overworked'.
Although performances of Shaw's earlier plays on the continent had already begun to establish him there as a major dramatist, it was the John Vedrenne–Harley Granville Barker production of John Bull in London which confirmed Shaw's stage reputation in England. He had begun backing the Royal Court Theatre management, unfashionably distant from the West End in Sloane Square, not only with his own capital but with his plays. The years of their association at the Royal Court (1904–7), with Barker performing in, as well as directing, a versatile company, afforded Shavian drama some of its finest moments.
It was at Shaw's as well as Barker's desire that the Royal Court seasons showcased new playwrights, and others new to London, and Shaw also encouraged his literary peers to attempt the stage with the prospect of Royal Court performances. Galsworthy, Masefield, and Hewlett responded with plays as did, among the younger generation, St John Hankin as well as Barker himself and the feminist Elizabeth Robins. Shaw also solicited Yeats, Wells, Kipling, Laurence Housman, Conrad, and G. K. Chesterton—even drafting a scenario to tempt G.K.C. From the continent came works by Ibsen, Hauptmann, Schnitzler, and Maeterlinck. Also, Shaw encouraged Gilbert Murray's verse adaptations of Euripides. He did not want the Royal Court to be a one-man show—himself.
In a public appeal for a national theatre that followed the Royal Court seasons, Shaw pointed to its critical success as showing the way 'for the public good' toward an endowed repertory theatre. G.B.S. also promoted an endowed Shakespeare theatre, and wrote a play, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (written 17–20 June 1910, produced 24 November 1910), on behalf of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre.
In Major Barbara, written from March to September 1905 and first presented (at the Royal Court Theatre) on 28 November, Shaw continued through high comedy to explore the religious consciousness as well as to probe society's complicity in its own evils. During the play Barbara Undershaft, a major in the Salvation Army, discovers that her father, a millionaire munitions manufacturer estranged from his family by his ultra-conventional wife, an earl's daughter, is an unconventional dealer in death. His principles, if not his business practice, are religious in the highest sense, while the Salvation Army, despite its good works and unassailable ideals, requires the hypocrisies of false public confession by the poor, and self-serving donations by the wealthy distillers and armaments dealers against whom it inveighs. (The Salvation Army, whose ameliorating efforts Shaw nevertheless praised, helped to mount the production.)
Indebted to Plato (The Republic) and Euripides (The Bacchae) and the lives of such contemporary armourers as Alfred Nobel, Basil Zaharoff, and Alfred Krupp, Major Barbara is one of Shaw's most complex plays. Nevertheless it is also one of his most moving, particularly in its Dickensian shelter scene in which a distraught Barbara recants her 'bribe of bread' evangelism. Major Barbara remains as universal as faith and war.
Between full-length plays, Shaw had been writing one-act experimental pieces, some as vehicles for favourite players, some as political thrusts, others to challenge the orthodoxies and proprieties of the stage. Several foreshadow the ‘theatre of the absurd’: while Shaw was working on Major Barbara, one such playlet—Passion, Poison and Petrifaction—was being performed in July 1905, anticipating by forty-five years Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (with its English clock striking seventeen English strokes). Much in Shaw's farce is ‘absurd’—as were the dialogue and action in other short works which he christened ‘tomfooleries’. In these precursors of the radical theatre that followed both world wars, it was not that the stage encompassed all the world but rather that all the world is the stage.
Challenged to prove his mettle as a serious dramatist by writing a death scene, Shaw produced, in The Doctor's Dilemma, written and performed in 1906, a comedy with a serio-comic on-stage death. A multifaceted satire, it focused upon the medical profession (representing the self-protectiveness of professions in general) and upon the artistic temperament, as well as upon the failure of the public to separate personality from artistic quality. If, in the dying and double-dealing painter Louis Dubedat, Shaw did not portray a convincing artistic genius, it was not that he was unable to create one, but that he targeted self-advertising charlatans who duped the unsophisticated in art.
Pre-war and wartime plays
Other significant plays of the pre-war period ranged from alleged potboilers (although some were Shaw's opportunities to experiment), to attempts to create a discussion drama best described as serious farce. Getting Married (written in 1907–8, performed in 1908), Misalliance (written in 1909, performed in 1910), and Fanny's First Play, his greatest first-run success with 622 performances (written in 1910–11, opened in 1911), are early examples of the genre. Each exploited artificiality and absurdity in setting, plot, and dialogue. Misalliance even had, in the early days of aviation, a shattering air crash just off-stage; Getting Married included a lady mayoress in a clairvoyant trance; Fanny's First Play set a suffragette comedy within an artificial frame-play, and identified the author as 'Xxxxxxx Xxxx'. Within were debates on parents and children, women's rights, marriage, and other issues then on the cutting edge for London audiences. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet (written in 1909) was set in an improbable American Wild West, parodying Bret Harte and aptly subtitled 'A sermon in crude melodrama'. The central action involves the conversion of a grimy horse thief who offers an impromptu preachment in a seedy saloon. When the lord chamberlain's censor of plays banned it on grounds of heresy, Shaw took the play to Dublin, where it played at the Abbey Theatre in August 1909 to capacity audiences who considered attendance as comeuppance to the British. When Blanco Posnet was published in 1911, Shaw included a long preface which incorporated a statement he had offered to a parliamentary hearing on stage censorship: 'I am not an ordinary playwright in general practice', he declared. 'I am a specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals'. Androcles and the Lion (written and performed in 1912) treated true and false religious exaltation less heretically than did Blanco Posnet. Combining the medieval traditions of the miracle play with the nineteenth-century Christmas pantomime, Shaw transformed the fable of the Greek slave and the Roman lions into a philosophical farce about early Christianity. Its central theme—that one must have something worth dying for, an end beyond the self, to make life worth living—is recurrent in Shaw. Lavinia, its heroine, is, like Keegan and Barbara before her, a step toward Shaw's Joan of Arc.
Transforming another familiar myth, Shaw turned to the Greek romance of Pygmalion and Galatea. His Pygmalion, written from March to June 1912, was performed in German in Vienna in October 1913 as translated by Siegfried Trebitsch, whose inadequate redactions were endured by Shaw complainingly but loyally all his life. The London opening occurred in April 1914, Shaw waiting for Mrs Patrick Campbell to become available despite her rebuff the year before, and the uncertainty that at forty-eight she could suggest a girl of eighteen. English audiences, however, preferred star quality to verisimilitude. Although Shaw claimed that he had written a didactic play about phonetics, and its anti-heroic protagonist, Henry Higgins, is indeed a speech professional, what playgoers saw was a high comedy about love and class, about a cockney flower-girl from Covent Garden educated to pass as a lady, and the repercussions of the experiment. Possibly Shaw's comedic masterpiece, the film adaptation (1938) earned him an Academy award for his screenplay, and further worldwide success was won by the Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe musical adaptation, My Fair Lady (1956).
The First World War began as Pygmalion was nearing its hundredth sell-out performance, and gave Shaw an excuse to wind down the production. Feeling that plays were futile in wartime, he turned out a lengthy Swiftian pamphlet, Common Sense about the War, which appeared on 14 November 1914 as a supplement to the New Statesman. His readership, predictably jingoistic at the start of the war, proved largely hostile to the idea of negotiation and peace, especially as Shaw held Britain and its allies equally culpable with the Germans and Austrians. It sold more than 75,000 copies before the end of the year and made him internationally notorious. Despite what he called its 'relative sanity', it 'grew monstrously in the public patriotic imagination' for what was perceived to be its 'passionate pro-Germanism, Defeatism and Pacifism' (Shaw, What I Really Wrote about the War, 1930, 116). Unreason reigned (some of his anti-war speeches were banned from the newspapers), and he was ejected from the Dramatists' Club, although he was its most distinguished member.
Unrepentant, Shaw badgered the government with farces about the war. The Inca of Perusalem, written in the first week of August 1915 and produced in Birmingham on 7 October 1916, was intended to make fun of Junker pomposity (the title figure was an absurd Kaiser Wilhelm II). Instead it revealed the pompous blindness of the British authorities. Shaw sent the text to the censor, assuming that the arch-enemy in war propaganda was a reasonable subject for satire. Doing business as usual, the lord chamberlain's office mandated a number of strictures, and banned German uniforms, adding, 'Would you also kindly see that the make-up of the Inca does not too closely resemble the German Emperor' (Weintraub, Journey to Heartbreak, 130).
Even earlier, on 23 July 1915, Shaw had begun a playlet satirizing British ineptitude in recruiting Irishmen. The process had been bungled in every way, in many cases deliberately, by officials wary of having young men they considered heretics and rebels trained to use firearms. After abandoning his manuscript Shaw began again on 3 September 1915, completing O'Flaherty, V.C. on the 14th. With a tongue-in-cheek subtitle, 'A recruiting pamphlet', it was first performed beyond the censor's purview—at the headquarters of 40 squadron, the Royal Flying Corps, Treziennes, Belgium—on 17 February 1917, because the commanding general of the Dublin district, although legally outside the censor's jurisdiction, had intimidated the Abbey Theatre management into cancelling its première.
A third wartime playlet, Augustus Does his Bit, begun on 12 August 1916 and completed eleven days later, appeared safe enough to be performed at the Royal Court Theatre on 21 January 1917, just before G.B.S., khaki-clad for the first time in his life, crossed to Boulogne on his way to Flanders. The farce caricatured the conscientious but obtuse and egotistic home-front bureaucrat, here Lord Augustus Highcastle, who was, according to Shaw's preface of 1919, 'well-meaning, brave, patriotic, but obstructively fussy, self-important, imbecile and dangerous'. The play, and press accounts of it, opened the hearts of military officialdom to Shaw. As the tide of public opinion shifted, the government's estimate of Shaw's usefulness altered as well, and early in 1917 he was even invited to report from the front for the London press. His accounts appeared in the issues for 6–8 March of the Daily Sketch, and were reprinted in What I Really Wrote about the War (1930, 1931). G.B.S. was once more respectable. T. S. Eliot remarked later:
It might have been predicted that what he said then would not seem so subversive or blasphemous now. The public has accepted Mr Shaw not by recognising the intelligence of what he said then, but by forgetting it; we must not forget that Shaw was a very unpopular man. He is no longer the gadfly.London Letter, The Dial, Oct 1921, 453–4
The unforgetful Shaw adapted his experience of 1914–18 into a dozen plays, sometimes defiantly, sometimes unobtrusively. Heartbreak House, written in 1916–17 and performed in 1920, became the classic Shavian presentation of the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the war. He combined in it high discursive comedy with a new symbolism, creating a sombre vision owing its mood to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, while its elderly leading figure, and much else, recalled Shakespeare's King Lear. Captain Shotover is eighty-eight and half-mad; and although he tries to draw the play's ingénue back from a cynical despair induced by discovering the falsity of all her values, his own sense of foreboding (he warns of the need to ‘learn navigation’) is expressed in his having turned his ingenuity as an inventor to military uses. At the end, a night air raid causes casualties and destruction, yet the drama's culminating horror lies not in exploding bombs, but in the lines of two women at the curtain. One exclaims, 'What a glorious experience! I hope theyll come again tomorrow night.' The other ('radiant at the prospect' in Shaw's stage directions) agrees, 'Oh, I hope so.' Thanatos has replaced Eros.
Between the wars
Back to Methuselah, written in 1918–20 and performed in 1922, was Shaw's attempt to fend off 'the bottomless pit of an utterly discouraging pessimism'. A cycle of five linked plays (In the Beginning, The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas, The Thing Happens, The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, As Far as Thought can Reach), it created a parable of creative evolution from the Garden of Eden to ad 31920. His 'Metabiological Pentateuch', it drew imaginatively upon Genesis, Plato, Swift, and even from the war in progress when he began, with the aim of creating a work on the scale of Wagner's Ring cycle.
The first play, through Adam and Eve (and the Serpent), and Cain and the murdered Abel, dramatizes the need to overcome death by the renewal of birth, and the need to nurture aspirations beyond mere subsistence. The second occurs in the years just after the First World War and is an indictment of the generation which made the war: Burge is Lloyd George while Lubin is Asquith. Conrad Barnabas discovers that sufficient longevity to learn from experience—perhaps 300 years—might be (in non-Darwinian fashion) willed. Here the Shavian superman is no longer thought of as, according to Shaw's earlier thesis, attainable soon enough through eugenic breeding. Rather he arrives with a leap in the third play, where two undistinguished characters from Barnabas are still alive in ad 2170. Longevity has brought them wisdom.
In the fourth play, set in ad 3000, a visitor from the dwindling race of the short-lived confronts the passionless and ascetic long-lived, who possess extraordinary powers but no evidence of soul. In the fifth play, far into the future, humans are born, fully developed, from eggs, and enjoy a contemplative ecstasy achieved after an adolescent phase of physical pleasure that quickly palls. In satire that ranges from bright to bleak, Shaw speculates through his futuristic characters about the pros and cons of escaping from 'this machinery of flesh and blood'. Back to Methuselah is dated as well as enlarged by the topical allusions in the less successful middle plays. Ennobling in vision, it proves awkward, however, as a total theatre experience.
As had been Shaw's practice for years, he had written the plays in Pitman shorthand, and had a secretary type out a draft which he would then revise. Since 1920 she had been Blanche Patch, who remained with him the rest of his life. He continued his revisions through whatever proofs were needed, as he had assumed the expenses of publication himself. Archibald Constable, his publisher since 1903, was only his distributor on commission.
Assuming that the long cycle had exhausted his creative energies, Shaw anticipated, at sixty-seven, that he was finished as a playwright. The canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920, however, reawakened ideas for a chronicle play which had never quite been dormant. The maid's sharp-tongued responses at her trial, he discovered, were in places almost Shavian (he used some of Joan's words nearly verbatim).
For Shaw it was insufficient to depict Joan as a sentimental heroine arrayed against melodramatic villains. Also, neither the militant nor the martyr in Joan appealed to him as much as did her symbolizing the possibilities of the race. The maid became Shavian saint and martyr as well as Catholic saint and martyr, an amalgam of practical mystic, heretical saint, and inspired genius. To make Joan's greatness of soul credible on-stage he made her adversaries credible, rehabilitating Bishop Peter Cauchon and his clerical colleagues who convicted her of heresy five centuries earlier. Since classic tragedy seemed inadequate, Shaw wrote an epilogue in which a newly canonized Joan is again rejected.
Acclaim for the play, written between 29 April and 24 August 1923, began with its première in New York on 28 December. Even the Nobel prize committee could no longer ignore Shaw after Saint Joan, offering him the prize for 1925. To the consternation of the Royal Swedish Academy he wrote that he wished
to discriminate between the award and the prize. For the award I have nothing but my best thanks. But … I cannot persuade myself to accept the money. My readers and my audiences provide me with more than sufficient money for my needs; and as to my renown it is greater than is good for my spiritual health.
At his request an Anglo-Scandinavian Literary Foundation was funded with the prize money, 'to encourage intercourse and understanding in literature and art between Sweden and the British Isles' (Letters, 4.34).
During his six-year theatrical hiatus after Saint Joan, Shaw continued to speak out, and to utilize, with artistry and verve, the new medium of radio as a frequent BBC speaker from the middle 1920s into the early 1940s, accepting no fee. As early as 20 November 1924 he read O'Flaherty, V.C. on the air, and he said his goodbye to the broadcast medium on his ninetieth birthday via BBC television. He also worked on his collected edition of more than thirty volumes and his political summa, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism (1928).
Shaw's Platonic ‘political extravaganza’ The Apple Cart (written in November and December 1928) was first performed, in Polish in Warsaw, on 14 June 1929. A futuristic high comedy, it revealed Shavian inner conflicts between his lifetime of radical politics and his essentially conservative mistrust of the common man's ability to govern himself. His dream epilogue to Saint Joan had continued his explorations into non-realism and symbolism, yet the new play included a threatened royal abdication that prefigured a real one in December 1936. Most of his succeeding plays employed broad caricatures and other extravagances designed to eliminate Ibsenite actuality by reminding audiences that they were experiencing performances on a stage rather than life in a three-walled room or realistic exterior. Shaw also employed apocalyptic imagery, warning that 1914–18 was about to be repeated. The deliberately absurd Too True to be Good, written from March to June 1931 and premièred in Boston on 29 February 1932, was a dream-fantasy, including a Bunyanesque prophet, an affectionate Lawrence of Arabia burlesque, and a burglar-turned-preacher (a disillusioned officer in the late war) who suggests at the curtain Shaw confronting his own obsolescence. He was seventy-five.
On the Rocks, written from February to July 1933 and performed in London on 25 November, predicted, despite its comedic texture, the collapse of parliamentary government in a proto-fascist, depression-blighted England. The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, written from February to April 1934 and first staged in New York on 18 February 1935 to Shaw's most derogatory reviews in decades, utilized a futuristic setting to satirize eugenic solutions to human problems—which Shaw himself had preached—and ends with a farcical yet mordant day of judgement.
It was the most travel-orientated work of many which were inspired or fleshed out by Shaw's experiences abroad. A Wagner pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1889 had reinforced his zeal for the composer and led to The Perfect Wagnerite. His Italian tours with the Art-Workers' Guild in 1891 and 1894 are recalled in his ‘Virgin Mother’ play Candida. Visiting north Africa had inspired Captain Brassbound's Conversion, and also the unseen but plot-crucial automobile race to Biskra in Algeria in Man and Superman. His visits to fascist Italy and a mid-1931 junket to Soviet Russia reinforced his convictions about the efficiency of dictatorial regimes, the subject of several late plays. A voyage to South Africa in 1932 resulted in his writing, while in Knysna, the novella The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. The Six of Calais, a short play written at sea in 1935, recalled Rodin's Les bourgeois de Calais sculpture group, while the brief Village Wooing, written from January to July 1933, was a response to his attempting to ply his craft while on board ship. The Simpleton drew upon Shaw's visiting islands in the south Pacific, and Jain temples and the Elephanta caves near Bombay, while on a round-the-world voyage. A stop on the voyage at Hong Kong, where he visited an elaborate home with a Buddhist shrine, led to a scene in Buoyant Billions, which he began on 17 February 1936 but put aside until 1945. The play also includes a Panama Canal episode drawn from a voyage in the 1930s. A second world war, and old age, put an end to the Shaws' journeyings.
The Millionairess, written in a two-week spurt from 27 April to 10 May 1934 and first performed in German translation in Vienna on 4 January 1936, was subtitled 'A Jonsonian comedy'. A knockabout farce, it examines the ‘born boss’, here an energetic exaggeration of Beatrice Webb. Geneva, written from February to April 1936 and first staged in Warsaw on 25 July 1938, had to be revised to fit changing events once it opened in England on 1 August that year. Lampooning the futile League of Nations, which signatory nations failed to support, it caricatured the dictators Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, on-stage in nearly invisible disguises. That the despots were treated so lightly, downplayed as braggarts on the eve of inevitable war, suggests that Shaw's flirtation with authoritarian inter-war regimes and his disillusion with flaccid inter-war democracies were slow in fading. His confidence in Stalinism, which seemed in his last years merely a façade he could not relinquish after a lifetime of radical activism, lasted to the end.
In Good King Charles's Golden Days (written from November 1938 to May 1939, performed on 11 August 1939) looked at authoritarianism more genially. His last pre-Second World War play, it echoed the mood of The Apple Cart, and was a warm, discursive high comedy set in the past rather than the future (it was subtitled 'A true history that never happened'). Witty and often moving, it dwells autumnally with the major preoccupations of Shaw's long life: 'The riddle of how to choose a ruler is still unanswered', says Charles, 'and it is the riddle of civilization.'
Shaw's serenely managerial queen in the play, Catherine of Braganza, is a late tribute to Charlotte Shaw, who endured her husband's genius and, while her health lasted, oversaw their households in the country and in London. Their marriage lasted their lives. Childless, they indulged in surrogate sons and daughters whose children often went to school on quiet Shavian largess. Granville Barker and Lillah McCarthy had their Royal Court and Savoy seasons underwritten by G.B.S., who lost, unconcernedly, all his investment. On leaving the theatre to join the Royal Flying Corps in 1914, Robert Loraine listed the Shaws as his next of kin. T. E. Lawrence, a friend since 1922, even took the name Shaw by deed poll in 1927, and had his own upstairs room at Ayot St Lawrence for visits on his explosive Brough motorcycle. At least one machine was unobtrusively paid for by the Shaws, and when Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash on its trade-in successor in 1935, G.B.S. and Charlotte, then away in South Africa, were doubly grieved.
Wartime and last works
The German blitz left 1940s London intolerable for the elderly Shaws, now in their middle eighties. They spent most months in the country, with G.B.S. keeping informed through the BBC and the newspapers. He wrote little at length except a vigorous tract of nearly 400 pages, Everybody's Political What's What? (1944). The need for a better world, he contended, 'has not the faintest chance of being supplied by our generations of Yahoos, now busy slaughtering and murdering each other in a war which is fundamentally not merely maniacal but nonsensical'. Unfettered capitalism was 'not an orgy of human villainy' but 'a Utopia that has dazzled and misled very amiable and public spirited men' (p. 2).
Shaw's film script of Major Barbara had gone before the cameras between air raids in 1940, followed by, later in the war, Caesar and Cleopatra, like Pygmalion and Major Barbara, directed by Gabriel Pascal. Filming from Shaw's screenplay began in June 1944 in Egypt and England under wartime logistical and financial constraints and largely beyond the oversight of its author, nearly ninety. It opened in London on 13 December 1945, in the first months of peace, to mixed notices. Buoyant Billions, begun in 1936–7, was completed in 1947, just before Shaw's ninety-first birthday. First presented in Zürich, in Siegfried Trebitsch's translation, on 21 August 1948, as Zu viel Geld, and subtitled in English 'A comedy of no manners', it dramatized the travels of Junius Smith, a self-styled ‘world betterer’. Farfetched Fables, written in July and August 1948 and presented on 6 September 1950, was a farce in six short scenes in which Shaw attempted to peer into a timeless future. In his post-atomic outlook, it seemed much different and more absurd than he had envisioned in 1920 in As Far as Thought can Reach.
Even briefer was an elegiac yet comic puppet play, written in four days beginning on 20 January 1949. After a life in the shadow of Shakespeare, Shaw, in Shakes versus Shav, has the two playwrights confront each other and, in blank verse, challenge each other's greatness. Closing, Shav reaffirms his once-shaken evolutionary optimism in the face of the Lear-like pessimism of Shakes, and adds,
For a moment sufferMy glimmering light to shine.
Plays, 7.477A last playlet, Why She Would Not, begun on 17 July 1950 and noted as completed on 23 July, three days before Shaw's ninety-fourth birthday, was first performed in New York on 21 January 1957. A fantasy with flashes of the earlier G.B.S. in evidence, it combines the ‘born boss’ theme with the duel of sex, but has more historic than dramatic interest. As Shaw had written in his preface to Buoyant Billions, 'As long as I live I must write' (ibid., 7.307).
When Charlotte, crippled by osteitis deformans, died aged eighty-six on 12 September 1943, G.B.S., frail and feeling the effects of Second World War austerities, made permanent his retreat from the Whitehall Court flat where they had moved from Adelphi Terrace in October 1927. (He had been living at the former rectory in Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire that had been their country home since 1906.) A fall on 10 September 1950, while pruning trees, fractured his hip. Bedridden, he developed kidney failure. With hospitalization useless, he asked to be returned home, where he died on 2 November. Charlotte's ashes had been stored since her cremation at Golders Green awaiting G.B.S.'s own. After his cremation the next day—at which Sydney Cockerell read the final passage of Mr Valiant for Truth from The Pilgrim's Progress, to which Shaw had long contended that he owed much of his writing style—his ashes were mixed with Charlotte's. On 23 November 1950, supervised by representatives of the public trustee, the joint remains were emptied into flower beds at Ayot St Lawrence. There was no ceremony.
Shaw's last major work was his lengthy last will and testament, prepared that July. By his bequest the National Trust would acquire the house, Shaw's Corner, at Ayot. After instructing the public trustee to license his publications only under the name Bernard Shaw (eliminating, he hoped, the George from authorized editions of his writings), and distributing small legacies, he directed that his assets form a trust to revamp the unwieldy English alphabet into a phonetic one of forty letters. Although the language of the relevant clause in the will was beautifully crafted and pellucidly clear, it was doubtful whether it created a legally valid trust, and the public trustee had no alternative but to take the issue to court. In December 1957 a settlement gave only token recognition to alphabet reform by setting aside a small sum (£8300) for a competition for a new alphabet in which an edition of Androcles and the Lion was printed (1962). The balance remained with the residuary legatees (the British Museum, recipient of his papers, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and the National Gallery of Ireland) to share as long as Shaw's copyrights remained in force.
Shaw left no school of playwrights although much of the drama of his time and after was indirectly in his debt. His creation of a drama of moral passion and of intellectual conflict and debate, his revivifying the comedy of manners, his ventures into symbolic farce and into a drama of disbelief, all helped to shape the theatre of his time and after, while his bringing of a bold new critical intelligence to his many other areas of interest helped to mould the political, economic, and social thought of three generations.
For decades after Shaw's death in 1950 reprints of his works and new stagings of his plays were inhibited in copyright-adhering nations by the paucity of his works in free public domain. Royalties had to be paid to the public trustee (Society of Authors) for performances and publications still in copyright. Directors in a new theatrical era where audiences craved not a plethora of words but a quicker exit could not legally cut back long speeches or make other condensations. While there has never been any slackening in biographies and critical studies, and while publication of Shaw's letters, diaries, journalism, and other writings has enlarged the body of his work for study, the fading of copyright has begun to enhance Shaw's posthumous reputation through an acceleration of translations, revivals, and reprints. A significant factor in sustaining Shaw's posthumous reputation has been the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara on the Lake, Canada, which has grown into a nearly year-round operation with three theatres, imaginative direction, superbly trained casts, and an international clientele. In 1921 Shaw concluded the preface to a play:
It is my hope that a hundred parables by younger hands will soon leave mine as far behind as the religious pictures of the fifteenth century left behind the first attempts of the early Christians at iconography. In that hope I withdraw and ring up the curtain.
While Shaw has been left behind as he indeed wished, his writings live.
- D. H. Laurence, Bernard Shaw: a bibliography, 2 vols. (1983)
- D. H. Laurence and M. K. Crawford, eds., ‘Bibliographical Shaw’, Shaw. The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, 20 (2000), viii–128
- Collected letters: Bernard Shaw, ed. D. H. Laurence, 4 vols. (1965–88)
- B. C. Rosset, Shaw of Dublin: the formative years (1964)
- A. Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: his life and works (1911)
- St J. Ervine, Bernard Shaw: his life, work and friends (1956)
- M. Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, 4 vols. (1988–93)
- R. Mander and J. Mitchenson, Theatrical companion to Shaw (1955)
- R. Weintraub, ed., ‘Shaw abroad’, Shaw. The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, 5 (1985)
- S. Weintraub, Journey to heartbreak: the crucible years of Bernard Shaw, 1914–1918 (1971)
- Shaw: an autobiography, ed. S. Weintraub, 2 vols. (1969–70)
- A. M. Gibbs, ed., Shaw: interviews and recollections (1990)
- S. Weintraub, Bernard Shaw: a guide to research (1992)
- Bernard Shaw: the diaries, 1885–1897, ed. S. Weintraub, 2 vols. (1986)
- The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: collected plays with their prefaces, 7 vols. (1970–74)
- G. B. Shaw, Sixteen self sketches (1948)
- W. S. Blunt, My diaries: a personal narrative of events, 1888–1914 (1921)
- Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: a correspondence (1931)
- M. Peters, Bernard Shaw and the actresses (1980)
- M. W. Pharand, Bernard Shaw and the French (2001)
- d. cert.
- BL, corresp., etc., Add. MS 63728
- BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 50508–50743, 63179–63187
- BLPES, business corresp. and papers, incl. engagement diaries
- BLPES, corresp. and papers given to Fabian Society
- BLPES, diaries
- Boston University, letters
- Brown University, Sidney Albert collection, letters and MSS
- Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, London, letters
- Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. and papers relating to ‘Political science in America’ lecture
- Colby College, Waterville, Maine, papers
- Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, papers, incl. literary MSS
- Free Library of Philadelphia, papers
- Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp., literary MSS, and papers
- Hunt. L., letters, literary MSS
- Leo Baeck Institute, New York, archives division, papers
- NL Ire., papers
- NRA, corresp. and literary papers
- NYPL, papers
- NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, papers
- Ransom HRC, corresp. and papers
- University of Guelph, Ontario, Dan H. Laurence Shaw collection
- University of Victoria, British Columbia, McPherson Library, corresp. and literary MSS
- V&A, theatre collections, letters
- V&A NAL, letters, literary MSS, and rehearsal notes
- BBC WAC, letters to Lord Reith
- Library of Birmingham, corresp. with Sir Barry Jackson
- BL, letters to Lady Aberconway, Add. MS 52556
- BL, corresp. with William Archer, Add. MS 45296
- BL, corresp. with John Burns, Add. MS 59784
- BL, corresp. with G. K. Chesterton and F. A. Chesterton, and others, Add. MS 73198, fols. 1–120
- BL, letters to Henry Havelock Ellis, Add. MS 61891
- BL, letters to Sir J. Forbes-Robertson and family, Add. MS 61998
- BL, letters to Holbrook Jackson, Add. MS 62992
- BL, letters to Edward Pease, Add. MS 59784
- BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, etc., Add. MSS 56627–56637
- BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 58493
- BL, corresp. with Ellen Terry, Add. MSS 43800–43802, 46172g, MS Facs. 496
- BL, letters to his wife, Add. MSS 46505–46507
- BL, lord chamberlain's papers
- BLPES, letters to A. G. Gardiner
- BLPES, corresp. with the independent labour party
- BLPES, letters to Graham Wallas
- BLPES, letters to Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb
- British Theatre Association Library, London, corresp. with Gilbert Murray
- CAC Cam., letters to E. Lyttelton [incl. copies]
- CUL, letters to Lady Kennet
- Elgar Birthplace Museum, corresp. with Sir Edward Elgar and family
- Herts. ALS, letters to St Albans Rural District Council
- Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. with Dora Russell
- Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. with Andreas Scheu
- JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
- King's AC Cam., letters to John Maynard Keynes
- King's AC Cam., letters to Gertrude Kingston
- King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
- NL Scot., letters to R. & R. Clark Ltd
- NL Wales, letters to his aunt Georgina
- NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones
- Parl. Arch., letters to Herbert Samuel
- Plunkett Foundation, Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, corresp. with Sir Horace Plunkett
- PRONI, letters to Lady Londonderry
- Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire, letters to Dame Laurentia McLachlan
- TCD, corresp. with Thomas Bodkin
- TCD, corresp. with Sir Almroth Wright
- U. Edin. L., corresp. with Charles Sarolea
- U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with R. Page Arnot
- U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. with J. H. Lloyd
- U. Reading L., corresp. with Nancy Astor
- U. Reading L., corresp. with Keith Read
- U. Sussex, corresp. with Kingsley Martin
- UCL, corresp. with Karl Pearson
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, corresp. with Constable & Co.
- V&A, theatre collections, corresp. with Ernest Thesiger
- BBC Sound Archives
- E. Walker, photographs, 1888, NPG
- H. Furniss, caricatures, pen-and-ink sketches, 1890–1900, NPG
- A. Ludovici, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1892, BM
- B. Partridge, watercolour, 1894, Jerwood Library of Performing Arts, London, Mander and Mitchenson collection
- B. Partridge, caricatures, watercolours, 1894–1925, NPG
- F. H. Evans, photograph, 1896, NPG
- E. J. Steichen, photograph, 1902, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Royal Photographic Society collection
- A. L. Coburn, photogravure, 1904, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits
- F. H. Evans, photograph, 1905, BL, Shaw papers
- A. L. Coburn, photograph, 1906, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
- A. Rodin, bronze bust, 1906, Rodin Museum, Philadelphia
- A. Rodin, marble head, 1906, Musée Rodin, Paris
- A. P. Barney, pastel drawing, 1908, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, DC
- A. L. Coburn, photograph, 1908, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Royal Photographic Society collection
- Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1910, repro. in Shaw: an autobiography, ed. Weintraub, vol. 2; priv. coll.
- C. Townshend, stained-glass window, 1910, Beatrice Webb House, Leith Hill, Surrey
- A. John, oils, 1915, Royal Collection
- A. John, oils, 1915, Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire
- W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1916, Man. City Gall.
- W. Rothenstein, etching, 1920, NPG
- H. Lavery, oils, 1925, Man. City Gall.
- P. Troubetzkoy, bronze sculpture, 1926, Tate collection
- J. Collier, oils, 1927, NG Ire.
- P. Troubetzkoy, bronze statue, 1927, NG Ire.
- W. Rothenstein, crayon drawing, 1928, U. Texas
- J. Davidson, bronze sculpture, 1929, U. Texas
- E. Kapp, drawing, 1930, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
- J. Coplans, bronze sculpture, 1932, NG Ire.
- J. Farleigh, woodblock print, 1932, repro. in G. B. Shaw, The adventures of the black girl in her search for God (1932)
- L. Knight, oils, exh. RA 1933, Hertford Art Gallery
- J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1934, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
- J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1934, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1934, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
- J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1934, U. Texas
- J. Epstein, bronze head, 1934, NPG
- F. Topolski, oils, 1939, Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
- Y. Karsh, photograph, 1943, NPG, Karsh of Ottawa, Canada
- F. Topolski, oils, 1943, U. Texas
- C. Winsten, oils, 1945, U. Texas
- C. Winsten, bronze bust, 1945, U. Essex
- C. Winsten, bronze sculpture, 1946, U. Texas
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, NYPL
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, Yale U.
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, U. Texas
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, BM
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, U. Cal., Los Angeles
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, FM Cam.
- M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, Cornell University Library, Ithaca
- H. Brodzky, caricature, coloured print, V&A
- A. L. Coburn, photograph, International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York
- J. Coplans, sculpture, National Book League, London
- F. Hollyer, photographs (in middle age), V&A
- Kathleen, Lady Kennet, bronze bust, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth
- L. Knight, drawing, Castle Museum, Nottingham
- J. Lavery, oils, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
- E. Nerman, caricature, pen and ink?, V&A
- B. Partridge, caricature, watercolour, Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin
- A. P. F. Ritchie, caricature, lithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (16 Aug 1911)
- W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
- Ruth [M. Beerbohm], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (28 Dec 1905)
- R. S. Sherriffs, group portraits, caricatures, sketches (with the Sitwells), NPG; repro. in The Sketch (12 Aug 1936)
- W. Strang, etching, NPG
- F. Topolski, ink drawing, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London
- P. Troubetzkoy, plaster statuette, Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire
- photographs, National Theatre, London
- photographs, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London
- photographs, BL, NPG, V&A
Wealth at Death
£367,233 13s.: probate, 20 March 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales